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À la Creole, en chemise, en gaulle: Marie Antoinette and the dress that sparked a revolution

Written by Sophie Whitehead. Marie Antoinette was surrounded by many controversies during her life, including that of her dress in a 1783 portrait. But how important was this portrait? And how far can it be said to have sparked a revolution?

The dress termed by columnist Caroline London as the ‘dress that ignited the slave trade,’ is undoubtedly one that faced much criticism. However, often that criticism, alongside London’s article, is overstated. Despite this over-estimation, Marie Antoinette’s chemise à la reine is important as it embodies criticisms of the Queen. Most of Marie Antoinette’s faux pas are extremely well documented, look to the phrase most synonymous with her, ‘let them eat cake,’ to realise that. However, whilst the traditional analysis of her downfall cites the 1784-5 Affair of the Diamond Necklace, more recent historians have started to look earlier. Particularly to the 1783 portrait by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, La reine en gaulle. The dress depicted in the painting has a plurality of meanings – evidenced not least through the names that the dress was called, à la Creole, en chemise, or en gaulle. Each of these names highlight the different issues that people have taken with the dress, from the exoticism of la Creole, to the unpatriotic nature of using gaulle, (layers of imported muslin fabric) or even the issue of seeing a queen in what some contemporaries called her underwear or en chemise. The plurality of issues taken with the dress, however, just seem to highlight the issues that many had with Marie Antoinette herself. 

Portrait of Marie Antoinette 1783 (Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress). Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Antoinette has often been wrongly attributed as the creator of the chemise à la reine dress, and whilst it is true that the name of the style originated from her wearing it, she was most certainly not its creator. She was not even the first woman at the French court to wear the dress, as the Princess de Lamballe, a confidant of Marie Antoinette, was painted in a dress of an almost identical style in 1782. Despite this clear link, there are still a wide range of ideas as to where the idea for the dress originated. 

 Some have argued that the dress was inspired by the Rousseauian idea of femininity. Rousseau states that one of the key characters of his novel Emile or on Education haït les riches habillemens; on voit tousjours dans le sein la simplicité jointe à l’élégance.’ [hates luxurious clothes: in her clothes; in her choice of dress, you always see simplicity joined with elegance.] Perhaps it is this ‘simplicité jointe à l’élégance’ that Marie Antoinette is trying to encompass. It is also notable that in Rousseau’s novel, Sophie is wearing a white frock and a single ribbon, in perhaps a style like that of Marie Antoinette’s. It is also argued that this dress is just a further development of what Phyllis G. Tortora has termed a ‘play at being country-folk’. This idea is corroborated with Marie Antoinette’s creation of the Queen’s hamlet at Le Petit Trianon.  

Nevertheless, arguably the most convincing theory originates from Marie Antoinette’s own diaries, in which she describes the dress as Le Robe à la Creole. The word gaulleused in the French title of the painting, originates from the Creole word gole. However, some historians claim that this is unlikely, arguing that it would have been difficult for her to have seen the style of dress that she supposedly had taken inspiration from. Nonetheless, Vaublanc, a contemporary of Marie Antoinette, describes being in Paris in 1782 when a group of Creole women in ‘beautiful linen cloth arrived’. No matter the origin of Marie Antoinette’s look, one thing was clear – the look did not originate from or embody French traditional dress. 

In the age of satire, image was more important than ever before – and this is no less the case for Marie Antoinette. The criticisms of the dress surround three main issues with Marie Antoinette’s image, which include – Marie Antoinette as a foreigner, as not understanding the common man, and as being hypersexual.  

Firstly, the issue of Marie Antoinette being seen as a foreigner originates unsurprisingly from her being Austrian. Many works of satire used this as a focal point for their pieces, taking the French word for an Austrian woman, Autrichienne and breaking it down into it either Atruche, meaning ostrich, or chienne, meaning bitch. If it is taken that the dress worn by Marie Antoinette in the La Reine en Gaulle portrait was inspired by West Indian fashion, then the reaction to her dress could be seen as another example of her othering.  

Another criticism of Marie Antoinette, as noted earlier, and as evidenced through her legacy, is her lack of understanding of the common man. Arguably, this dress is just adding salt to a wound. Whilst the infamous ‘let them eat cake’, or ‘qu’ils mangent du brioche’, originated from Rousseau’s book The Confessions, published in 1790, it was not the first time that criticisms of being out of touch were lobbied against royals. According to historian and biographer Antonia Fraser, the phrase was used a hundred years before by Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish wife of Louis XIV. Whilst the phrase may not be correctly attributed to Marie Antoinette, the reaction to this dress is further evidence of her being seen as out of touch. Fashion historian Amber Butchart argues that Marie Antoinette’s dressing as her idea of a shepherdess would have seemed to completely miss the mark. Additionally, Marie Antoinette’s wearing of the gold sash as well as what would have been incredibly expensive, imported Indian Muslin, would have seemed completely inconsiderate to the farmers struggling during years of famine. It is also clear through looking at the dresses of the same style that Marie Antoinette sent to English friends, Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire and actress Mary Robinson, now held at the Manchester Art Gallery, that the dress was made of a muslin with highly elaborate embroidery known as ChikanIf seen to be inspired by a pastorale idle, then Marie Antoinette’s fashion choice could be seen as discordant, even insulting to the suffering of the French peoples. Even more likely, particularly due to the similarity with the criticisms lanced towards the Spanish-born Queen Marie-Thérèse, the issue with the dress and with Marie Antoinette herself could be more to do with their foreign origins than ineptitude of reading of the social context. 

The final issue that the reception to the dress highlights is the problem of the dress as being immodest. A dress style that made people look, according to Jane Austen, ‘at once expensively and nakedly dressed’. The criticisms of the dress highlight the criticisms of Marie Antoinette as being overtly sexual and immodest. Libelles (political pamphlets) and pornographic pamphlets focused on Marie Antoinette’s sexuality, presenting her as a sexual deviant. On top of that, the Diamond Necklace affair, which included a prostitute dressing up as the Queen, perpetuated the idea of her as promiscuous. To many, the Queen appearing in her underwear or en chemise, was a further acknowledgement of this trope. 

The impact of Marie Antoinette’s dress is perhaps what has made it so enigmatic over the years. After all, it has been blamed by London for igniting the slave trade and by this article for sparking the French revolution (or at least the downfall of Marie Antoinette). However, Marie Antoinette’s dress also has wider implications on the definitions of both royalty and femininity. In a letter to Marie Antoinette, Marie Theresa reminds her daughter that, ‘it is for [her] to set the tone at Versailles,’ and that is exactly what she did through wearing this dress – however, the tone set was not approved of by contemporaries. The dress was, in effect, so unpopular that it had to be taken down from its exhibition and replaced by a new portrait. The new portrait was arguably very similar in composition to the La reine en gaulle portrait – separated, however, by one key difference – Marie Antoinette was wearing silk. The key criticism of Marie Antoinette’s La reine en gaulle portrait was that she was wearing imported muslin and not lyonnaise silk. The criticism was so damning that Marie Antoinette was blamed by one contemporary for the loss of ¾ of jobs in the silk factories. It is clear from the criticisms that the key role for queens within society in the eighteenth century was not just to ‘set the tone’ but also be a figurehead of the country’s industry and influence the tastes and fashions of a whole nation. 

Marie Antoinette’s image through the dress is something that has also been highlighted by critics. Hosford claims that Marie Antoinette was representing a woman and not representing France. Arguably, this is partially due to her not wearing French silks, but it also reaches the heart of many people’s problems with Marie Antoinette: that she was not French. As has been previously highlighted, Marie Antoinette’s Austrian heritage was the source of much satirical commentary, particularly at a time of political tension between France and the Holy Roman Empire. However, perhaps it is not just that she did not represent France, but also misrepresented French womanhood. 

Through the reactions to Marie Antoinette’s dress, and to the chemise à la reine trend, what is most interesting is what it says about the differences between the fashionability of queens and of celebrities. As previously mentioned, Marie Antoinette would gift the chemise à la reine to two English women, Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire, and actress Mary Robinson, who would go on to popularise the style in England with the dress being worn by many members of the Blue Stockings Society, including Mary Wollstonecraft. Whilst this style of dress was popularised amongst celebrity without a problem, there seems to be an issue with its wearing by royalty. As with Marie Antoinette, Danish Princess Louise Augusta was deeply criticised for wearing a dress that contemporaries claimed you could see her legs in, which led the painter to adding more layers to it. Perhaps what the popularisation and criticism of this dress highlights is the emergence of different expectations for the dress code of celebrities and royalty. Much like the dress of Princess Louise Augusta, Marie Antoinette’s dress was also re-painted. After being taken down from the Salon du Louvre it was replaced by the Marie Antoinette With a Rose painting. It is evident through such a repainting that this dress was not suitable for royalty. 

While the dress was not suitable for royalty, it was suitable for revolution. The dress shares significant similarities to later revolutionary chemises, which drew inspiration from Greco-Roman dresses. While these ‘robes atheniennes de linon’ [linen Athenian dresses] acted as a visual reminder of Greek democracy, they can also be seen to be popularised in style both by Marie Antoinette and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who in 1788 would host a ‘Greek’ costume dinner in which her guests took a break from Rocco colours to wear white chemise à la reine style dresses.  

Arguably the ultimate revolutionary chemise is worn by Marianne, whose name and dress highly reflect those of Marie Antoinette. Whilst popular French myth would argue that the name Marianne come from the two most popular names at the time, the similarity to Marie Antoinette’s own name and dress appear too poignant to ignore. If the name Marianne is read as a stripped back version of the Queen, then it is perhaps unsurprising that Marianne’s iconic dress draws many similarities to Marie Antoinette’s most simplistic one. If this is the case, then maybe Hosford is wrong; maybe she does come to represent France eventually, through the ultimate symbol of France – Marianne.  

The plurality of possible readings for Marie Antoinette’s chemise à la reine even through its many names speaks to her plurality of character. There is no one possible influence of her dress, nor is there one depiction of her in popular culture. It is this messiness, however, which makes her and her dress so enigmatic. The dress is so important in the history of both fashion and revolution as it helps to explore the boundaries between celebrity and royalty, and is a dress which simultaneously means democracy to some and to others means out-of-touch royalty. Whilst the chemise a la reine may have started as a reason for revolution, it would later develop into the very symbol of revolution. So yes, the chemise a la reine did spark a revolution, though which side it sparked is not clear. 

Written by Sophie Whitehead 

Bibliography

Ashelford, Jane. “‘Colonial Livery’ and the Chemise à La Reine, 1779–1784.” Costume 52, no. 2 (2018): 217-39. 

Goodman, Sarah.  Devil in a White Dress: Marie-Antoinette and the Fashioning of a Scandal. 2017. 

Hosford, Desmond. “The Queen’s Hair: Marie-Antoinette, Politics, and DNA.” Eighteenth-century Studies 38, no. 1 (2004): 183-200. 

Larkin, T. Lawrence. “”Je Ne Suis plus La Reine, Je Suis Moi”: Marie-Antoinette at the Salon of 1783.” Aurora (Woodcliff Lake, N.J.) 4 (2003): 109. 

Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory 20, no. 3 (2016): 273-96. 

Ward, Susan. “Chemise Dress.” Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion 1 (2005): 254-55. 

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